– Opening statement from our patron and honorary member, Peter Greste
– Australian writers in-focus
– Events we held/attended
– Brief overseas update – Ukraine
– What’s happening next?
(from patron and honorary member Peter Greste)
In an era when everyone’s nonsense detectors are dialled up to 11, you’d have thought the Liberal party might have been truer to their label. Robert Menzies formed the party to do what it says on the tin – support the classical small-l liberal values like respect for freedom of expression, civil liberties, transparency, small government, and political freedom; ideas that PEN and its supporters should be in complete alignment with. After all, writers simply cannot operate without them. Why then, was it so hard for the party to reconcile those principles with the way the previous government handled people like Behrouz Boochani, the Kurdish journalist and writer unjustly imprisoned in offshore immigration detention from 2013 until New Zealand finally let him in, in 2019? Or its relative silence on the brutal crackdown on writers and journalists in Myanmar since last year’s coup? Or the continued persecution of lawyer Bernard Collaery and Witness K? Or the slew of national security legislation that in ways both small and large, criminalize otherwise legitimate journalism and free speech, turning Australia into the most draconian state in the Western world?
My point is not so much to rue the Liberals as it is to point to the opportunity the election has delivered. As Paul Keating famously once said, “change the government, and you change the country.” If that is the case, Australia has just done a U-turn, and not simply because on May 21, we replaced the coalition with the Labor Party. We not only gave the Liberals a spanking; we collectively demanded a whole new style of politics – one that is more inclusive, more tolerant, more intelligent, and more principled.
None of this will come as news to anyone who has been paying attention to the papers. But I mention it because of the rare opportunity it gives PEN supporters and campaigners. Remember, Julia Gillard was the Labor Prime Minister who set up the shameful offshore detention centres that interred the likes of Behrouz for years. Since 9/11, Labor has supported or initiated most of the draconian national security legislation largely responsible for driving Australia down 20 places in the World Press Freedom Index. On its own, the party can hardly be counted on to fight for imprisoned and persecuted writers.
But independents like the newly elected former ABC foreign correspondent Zoe Daniels can. And the veteran Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie, with his long history of standing up for Julian Assange, Witness-K and Bernard Collaery. And the Greens’ Senator Sarah Hansen-Young who stood alongside Wilkie and Collaery in protests outside Parliament House. The election not only shifted the balance of politics back to the centre, but it created space for the minor parties and independents to be heard on issues that would otherwise go straight to the awkward bin; issues like the freedom of expression, and the plight of imprisoned and persecuted writers.
The next 12 months are crucial. This is the honeymoon period when the government is flushed with confidence and energy, the independents and Greens are idealistic and ready to do deals, and before they all get cynical and worried about the maths for the next election.
My own organisation, the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, is planning to seize the opportunity with a push for a badly needed Media Freedom Act that would write press freedom into the DNA of Australian law. It won’t solve all our problems, but it will go a long way to addressing the imbalance created by the past decade of draconian security.
Peter Greste is an internationally recognised journalist concerned with questions of politics, media freedom and war. He has worked for Reuters, CNN and the BBC in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. For his work on media freedom and human rights, he has won awards from the Walkley Foundation, the RSL’s ANZAC Peace Prize, and the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Human Rights Medal. Thank you for providing PEN Perth with your informative and urgent statement, Mr Greste.
Australian writers in focus
Bernard Collaery is an Australian barrister, lawyer and former politician. The Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions charged Collaery under the National Security Information (NSI) Act with disclosing protected intelligence information. The information in question was an Australian Secret Intelligence Service mission to bug the government offices of Timor-Leste to obtain oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea. Mark Dreyfus, who is tipped to become attorney general, told Guardian Australia he would be seeking an urgent briefing. For fuller information, see The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/may/26/october-trial-date-set-for-bernard-collaery-nearly-four-years-after-charges-laid
Julian Assange faces 175 years in a US prison under the 1917 Espionage Act for exposing evidence of US war crimes. While fighting the extradition, Assange has spent the last three years detained in HMP Belmarsh, the United Kingdom’s highest security prison, without being convicted of any crime and without being granted bail. Home Secretary of the United Kingdom, Priti Patel, granted the extradition of Julian Assange to the United States, setting a dangerous precedent for all media, publishers and journalists. Leading journalists, lawyers, academics, and press freedom groups speaking out in defense of the United States’ First Amendment and in support of Julian Assange (see: https://assangedefense.org/supporters/). Write to your MP now and make it clear that Julian has suffered enough: https://ithaka.movie/take-action/
Information provided by Louise and Leeanne at the ithaka Impact Team.
Yang Hengjun is a Chinese-Australian, pro-democracy writer, political commentator and blogger. Yang wrote spy novels based on his personal experience within the Chinese system. On 18 January 2019, he was detained by Chinese authorities under accusations of supplying state secrets. According to Yang’s communications from prison and Human Rights Watch, Yang’s health has deteriorated under torture and attempts to obtain false confessions. He has been imprisoned for three years under vague espionage charges. For more information, see: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/31/they-tortured-me-australian-yang-hengjun-says-as-he-awaits-verdict-after-trial-in-china
Events we held/attended
On 7APRIL2022, Kylie Moore-Gilbert spoke with PEN Perth secretary Dennis Haskell for the launch of her memoir, The Uncaged Sky at the State Library Of WA. Moore-Gilbert was falsely charged with espionage and imprisoned in Iran from SEPT2018 to NOV2020 before being released in a prisoner exchange deal negotiated by the Australian government. Writing with vivid immediacy, in The Uncaged Sky Kylie explores not only her battle against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps but also the battle within her own self for survival.
Our packed auditorium was a testament to our local community’s interest in the plight of detained Australian journalists and writers. We were privy to the stories of profound resistance and unexpected friendships amid the paranoia of planted spies and torture in Moore-Gilbert’s ordeal. Thank you for coming to speak with us!
12-14JUNE2022, PEN Perth committee member Frances An attended the Heterodox Academy (https://heterodoxacademy.org/) conference in Denver, Colorado (USA). The theme was ‘Renewing Spaces of Knowledge and Trust’. The conference included higher-education and K-12 professionals, thought leaders, and all who care about the health of education to discuss the crisis of trust facing our public institutions and deepen our shared pursuit of knowledge, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement. One event that stood out was the panel discussion ‘Academic Freedom: Dangers and Distractions’ (pictured above). An issue that Jonathan Friedman from PEN America brought up was the legal prohibition on books relating to LGBTIQA+ representation which religious dogmatists on the political right claimed as a defence of free speech from leftist identity politics. This illuminating discussion reminds us that within our own developed, democratic institutions, phrases once idolised as hallmarks of democracy can be distorted to support illiberal actions.
Brief overseas update – Ukraine
In solidarity with all those affected by the war in Ukraine, PEN International and PEN Ukraine are publishing 20 quotes by Ukrainian writers and members of PEN Ukraine, who reflect on the horrific Ukraine-Russia conflict. Here is one:
‘The war changes the perception of time. Your life can change in one day, one hour, one minute. Delaying decisions until tomorrow can cost you safety or even life. Time is no longer a menu of options between which you choose; it is an unpredictable sequence of plains and abysses.’ – Volodymyr Yermolenko, philosopher, writer, journalist and member of PEN Ukraine
For all 20 quotes, more articles on the conflict and Ukrainian writers reading from their work, please visit: https://pen-international.org/news/quotes-on-war
On 5JULY2022, PEN Perth will be meeting with the Human Rights Commissioner, Lorraine Finlay to discuss issues such the state of freedom of responsible expression and independent media in Australia. Finlay has been involved in a variety of community organisations. Most recently this has included being a member of the Executive Committee of the National Council of Women (WA) (2011-2019) and a Board Member of the Ishar Multicultural Women’s Health Service (2013-2018). For more information about her, see: https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/commission-general/human-rights-commissioner-ms-lorraine-finlay.
Are there questions or concerns you would like us to bring to her attention? Please send them to us via our social media or email. We would love to hear from you, our treasured members of this engaged PEN Perth community.
Stay tuned for our JULY Asia-focused edition: we will have more news on journalistic and literary freedom among our Asia-Pacific neighbours. The JULY edition will jump off with some reflections on the National Security Law in Hong Kong.